The best rock songs of 2020 brought joy to a year that really needed it.
It’s pretty hard to imagine how the year could have gone worse for the the music industry as a whole, as the COVID-19 pandemic brought live performances to a complete standstill and left both fans and artists struggling with the crippling economic effects of the virus.
But the music never stopped. Granted, many of the songs below came from recording sessions that took place before the pandemic took hold. But unlike the movie industry, which went on near-complete lockdown, some of rock’s biggest names forged ahead and released new music anyway.
These artists all took a big risk by releasing their work into such an uncertain situation and without the ability to promote it onstage, but they sure did make our year brighter. Below we survey the 20 Best Rock Songs of 2020, listed alphabetically by artist name.
AC/DC, « Realize »
That AC/DC got back together after the death of Malcolm Young and the health- or wellness-related departures of everybody not named Angus Young during the band’s chaotic Rock or Bust tour is already amazing. The fact that the resulting album, Power Up, is so good is a minor miracle. Of course the basic sonic formula hasn’t changed; that’s a point of pride with this band. But their energy and focus seem to be recharged, and they put the usual pieces together in fresh and exciting ways here. The best example is the LP’s opening track, which finds Young running wild over the verses with increasingly unhinged bursts of jangled rhythm guitar while Brian Johnson leads AC/DC through surprisingly lush and expansive chorus vocals.
Blue Oyster Cult, « Box in My Head »
Buck Dharma takes lead vocals on a cheery, upbeat track that could almost have been written for any number of cheery, upbeat ‘80s rock bands – were it not for the subtle little twists and turns that make it an essential Blue Oyster Cult work. On the surface, « Box in My Head » is soft and sweet, but not far underneath there’s a sarcastic element best portrayed by the main riff. The lyrics are equally contrasting in surface and depth: It’s a teenage love song, inviting a sweetheart to come closer, while also servings as a warning that no one’s going to like what’s revealed. The effect is an admirable clash of radio-friendly bubblegum and classic BOC humor and observation. It’s also a timely reminder that there’s always space in the world for more intelligent pop.
Elvis Costello, “No Flag”
The opening sounds on “No Flag” feel otherworldly, with percussion and an eerie synth line luring in listeners. An emphatic guitar riff soon kicks in, delivering an instant dose of energy and aggression to the track. Elvis Costello recalls his early punk-inspired years on “No Flag,” declaring his displeasure with the state of the world on the song’s chorus: “No time for this kind of love / No flag waving high above / No sign for the dark place that I live / No God for the damn that I don’t give.”
Deep Purple, « The Power of the Moon »
There goes Ian Gillan, off on one of those lyrical journeys you can probably nearly follow, but never entirely. This time he’s singing about the one single thing that every human ever has stared at – the moon – and it’s satisfyingly evocative. It wouldn’t be as satisfying if the rest of Deep Purple didn’t provide such a locked-in vibe: spooky, threatening and emphasizing the sense there are more things in heaven and on Earth than we’ll ever dream of. Steve Morse and Don Airey lock in beautifully to open the show, and Ian Paice adds color where it’s needed until the song explodes into oh-so-classic Purple jam time. What’s most fascinating is that each band member carries the same tonal theme for a short time (bassist Roger Glover keeps it for longest) – an exploration of timeless communication that you don’t have to understand to enjoy.
Drive-By Truckers, « Thoughts and Prayers »
Pre-coronavirus, one of the world’s main worries was the spate of mass killings caused by guns, especially in the U.S. Drive-By Truckers take on the subject on the first of their two 2020 albums (the second arrived after COVID-19). Specifically, they lash out at politicians who offer no concrete solutions to the problem, only platitudes. « Stick it up your ass with your useless thoughts and prayers, » they sing.
Bob Dylan, « Murder Most Foul »
When « Murder Most Foul » arrived at the end of March, nobody was really sure where this new Bob Dylan song came from. Turns out it’s the centerpiece of the great Rough and Rowdy Ways album, which was released three months later. At 17 minutes, it’s one of Dylan’s most sprawling works – in more ways than it initially lets on. Jumping off John F. Kennedy’s assassination, the song weaves through a half-century’s worth of history.
Foo Fighters, « Shame Shame »
Foo Fighters released something different as the first single from their upcoming Medicine at Midnight album – following a lead established by Pearl Jam in 2020. Dave Grohl is promising an eclectic batch of songs on the band’s first album since 2017’s Concrete and Gold – but not necessarily something as funkified as « Shame Shame. » That’s a shame. As with Pearl Jam, it might have been interesting to see how much further Foo Fighters could have traveled down this new path. Nevertheless, it was a fun journey along the way.
Green Day, “Oh Yeah!”
On “Oh Yeah!,” Green Day address everything from the vanity of fame to the polarizing divides within American society. The genius is that they could hide such weighty topics behind an infectiously catchy pop-punk hook. Anchored by a sample of Joan Jett’s « Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah), » “Oh Yeah!” added another fist-pumping anthem to Green Day’ long list of them.
Jason Isbell & the 400 Unit, « What’ve I Done to Help »
The opening song on Jason Isbell’s Reunions album runs nearly seven minutes and includes strings, vocal assist from David Crosby and a heart big enough to make this lousy year just a little better. It also serves as a fitting intro to Isbell’s most grown-up and self-reflective album. « I’ve made mistakes that I can’t erase, » he sings. « Some of the love I’ve lost will not come back to me. »
Paul McCartney, “Slidin’”
Can Paul McCartney, a happy family man now pushing 80, still rock? We know he can write a catchy tune, and his latter career embrace of experimentation (as on 2018’s Egypt Station) has been nothing short of triumphant. But can he rock? “Slidin’” answered that question with an emphatic yes. The bruising track, one of the many highlights from McCartney III, features a fuzzed out, burly bass line, which – when coupled with soaring guitars and a slick drum groove – makes it arguably McCartney’s heaviest song since « Helter Skelter. »
Ozzy Osbourne, « Under the Graveyard »
While Ordinary Man is a successful blending of styles across the board, “Under the Graveyard” is the most special of those, since it mixes the best of Ozzy Osbourne’s solo material with the best of Black Sabbath’s late-career triumphs. With different production, the songs could even have fit comfortably on a Sabbath album decades ago, since the album features a doom-rock vibe at its core. Thing is, the album couldn’t have been written back then. While Osbourne has spent much of his life singing about the occult and other such matters, “Under the Graveyard” reflects on his life and the scars left behind. The result is a powerful fusion of the tense energy Sabbath created in the ‘70s, merged with a sadder and wiser singer who sounds like he’s become the kind of scary character he’d have used as inspiration in his younger years.
Pearl Jam, “Dance of the Clairvoyants”
Eddie Vedder’s Talking Heads fandom finally boiled over into a Pearl Jam song with “Dance of the Clairvoyants.” A bouncy synth hook and funky bass line give way to Vedder’s distinctive vocals on the track, released as the lead single for their 2020 LP Gigaton. Although “Dance” featured Talking Heads-style motifs – experimentation with electronic sounds, percussion originally written on a drum machine – Pearl Jam made the sound their own, continuing to evolve the band’s dynamic more than 30 years after the group was founded.
Pretenders, « Didn’t Want to Be This Lonely »
After working with outside musicians on 2016’s Alone, Chrissie Hynde brought founding Pretenders drummer Martin Chambers and longtime members James Walbourne and Nick Wilkinson back into the studio for Hate for Sale. The result was an exhilarating half-hour showcase of all the big and little things the Pretenders do so well. Hynde’s voice remains a powerful and distinctive marvel, and the 10 songs she co-wrote with Walbourne offer a wide display of the group’s range. The Bo-Diddley-beat-riding « Didn’t Want to Be This Lonely » might be both the most immediate and most enduring of the bunch, punctuated by some dazzling rockabilly lead guitar.
The Rolling Stones, « Living in a Ghost Town »
To call this instant-release, coronavirus-themed Rolling Stones single a surprise is quite the understatement. After all, it’s been 15 years since their last original LP – a period of time that roughly matches that between England’s Newest Hit Makers and Some Girls. But then ongoing sessions for a long-promised new album met the moment, as a song the band had already been working on somehow synced up with current events. Quickly completed, « Living in a Ghost Town » paired a smart sense of dub-influenced modernity and spookily prescient plaque imagery with a perfectly Mick Jagger-esque complaint about how much it’s all screwing up his sex life.
David Lee Roth, « Somewhere Over the Rainbow Bar and Grill »
Eddie Van Halen’s death prompted a massive wave of written tributes from bandmates and peers, but David Lee Roth used music and art to express his feelings. Recorded with guitarist John 5 and Eat ‘Em and Smile drummer Gregg Bissonette back in 2014, « Somewhere Over the Rainbow Bar and Grill » is a nostalgic look back at Van Halen’s early days that proved to be the perfect tribute, especially when paired with Roth’s lovingly drawn illustration. As with his work on 2012’s A Different Kind of Truth, the touching, tuneful and surprisingly textured song proves Roth still has his curveball. « It’s a damn good story, » he promises, « and there’s still more to tell. »
Joe Satriani, « Ali Farka, Dick Dale, an Alien and Me »
Joe Satriani’s 17th album finds him pushing his creative abilities forward as bravely and boldly as ever. The guitar wizard told UCR his goal was to sound like a different player on each of Shapeshifting’s 13 songs. On the particularly exotic « Ali Farka, Dick Dale, an Alien and Me, » fans get a four-for-one special, as Satriani takes turns cosplaying as legendary Malian multi-instrumentalist Ali Farka Toure, surf-guitar hero Dick Dale and, um, an alien.
The Smashing Pumpkins, “Cyr”
Things have not gone well for the Smashing Pumpkins since their 2000 classic lineup disbandment. Releases under the band’s name, but really just Billy Corgan alongside a rotating assembly of musicians, were uneven efforts that failed to live up to the lofty standards of the group’s ‘90s heyday. The 2018 reunion of the classic lineup (minus bassist D’arcy Wretzky) brought with it renewed excitement, and fans’ hopes were rewarded with 2020’s Cyr. The LP saw the Smashing Pumpkins delving into the world of synths and electronics, adding a dance sheen to their distinctive emotional growl. No tune embodied the band’s new formula more than the title track, a shimmering fusion of New Wave and alt-rock that represented a welcomed return to form.
Bruce Springsteen, « Ghosts »
Letter to You, the album that includes « Ghosts, » is all about mortality and coming to terms with the past through the living. So it’s more than fitting that this standout song is brimming with life. When Springsteen shouts « I’m alive! » at a climatic moment, it’s more than just a triumph; it’s celebration of both survival and acceptance. On an album haunted and restrained by the past, « Ghosts » is a rare moment of unbridled release.
The Strokes, “Bad Decisions”
If anyone has forgotten why the Strokes are one of the 21st century’s defining rock bands, “Bad Decisions” is here to jog their memory. The standout single from the group’s sixth LP, The New Abnormal, is an onslaught of catchy rhythms, jangling guitar riffs and lively vocals. It’s the kind of song that you’d dance to at a bar, then sing again in the car on the drive home. An energetic, toe-tapping track that reminds listeners just how fun the Strokes can be.
Wolfgang Van Halen, « Distance »
It’s hard to imagine how more pressure or scrutiny could have been placed on Wolfgang Van Halen’s debut single. To start with, he’s the son of Eddie Van Halen, one of the most innovative, influential and revered guitarists in rock history. On top of that, two years had passed since Wolfgang announced his album was completed. It turned out the record was delayed because he was helping to care for his ailing father, who died in October. A month later, he released his debut single, « Distance, » a tribute and farewell written during Eddie’s health battle. It’s a testament to Wolfgang’s growing talent that he establishes himself with such a firm voice and independent style on this moving song.